Almost 10 years ago, vaporwave memes took over the internet by storm. The first microgenre to be born and live its life entirely on the Internet. Thanks to its nostalgic and surrealist take on popular culture and entertainment that helped exteriorized the bygone-ingenuousness. But writing about Vaporwave in 2020 is almost as unnecessary as carrying small changes for the phone booths. We don’t need to do that anymore because there are plenty of other things out there to do and talk about in 2020. Not that consumer capitalism is dead, it’s just we are trying to be satisfied with the status quo we are in right now.
If everything I am saying sounds confusing to you, try this.
Vaporwave was originally created as a meme with an ambiguous and satirical take on globalization, runaway consumerism, manufactured nostalgia, and most importantly technoculture (the interactions between, and politics of, technology and culture). No other music has ever been directly associated with these aspects of the zeitgeist. And if it was the first time you heard of the genre, that’s perfectly fine. That is the whole point of the genre. Gaining mainstream recognition would only weaken its authenticity and ingenuousness.
The term vaporwave came from Vaporware, which is basically computer hardware or software that has been announced to the general public but is never actually manufactured nor officially canceled. The genre took its heavy influence from the 80s and 90s pop, electronic, mood, lounge, smooth jazz, hypnagogic pop, muzak (a brand of music played in retail stores and other public establishments), r&b, elevator music, city and art-pop and funk music and remixed them down to create an incantation to mock runaway pop culture.
The template for vaporwave was originally posted to Tumblr and Reddit in 2010. Daniel Lopatin’s (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 followed by James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual are considered to be the first ever vaporwave album come out in 2010 and 2011. Eccojams used chopped and screwed technique on popular 80s pop songs likes of Africa by TOTO, Castles In The Sky by Ian Van Dahl & Marsha, Morphin by Michael Jackson, Everybody’s Been Burned by The Byrds, Lonely by Janet Jackson, The Four Horsemen by Aphrodite’s Child and many others with album artwork that resembled the packaging of the 1992 video game Ecco the Dolphin.
But Ferraro’s take on vaporwave was different from Lopatin’s. Far Side Virtual was hugely influenced by the upbeat, hopeful and crisp elevator music, uptempo synth strings, and automated voices from the 90s.
Explaining the title in an interview, Ferraro said:
“Far Side Virtual mainly designates a space in society, or a mode of behaving. All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks—buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is — because people kind of live in it already.”
While Lopatin and Ferraro are the pioneers of the genre, it was not for them vaporwave gained its main popularity. Ramona Xavier’s (Macintosh Plus/ predominantly known by the stage name Vektroid) Floral Shoppe released on December 9, 2011, was the first album to be properly considered as vaporwave, containing all of the genre’s core elements. It was the lodestone that personified all the elements.
Floral Shoppe’s appeal comes from its nostalgia. The whole album is a heavily synthesized and heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music filled with loops and vocal samples often pitched down to a point where the listener can barely distinguish lyrics from ambient noises. “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ” or roughly translated to “Computing of Lisa Frank 420//Contemporary.” samples It’s Your Move by Diana Ross is the magnum opus of the album. The track is disassembled and then put back together to create the nostalgic feel that it conveys.
Vaporwave found its wider audience and artists right after Floral Shoppe in mid-2012. The album amplified vaporwave’s impact and helped create a whole bunch of new micro-genres like future funk, hardvapor, vaportrap, vaporgoth, mallsoft under it. Artists like18 Carat Affair, Luxury Elite, Blank Banshee, 2814, Saint Pepsi, Lancaster, TELOZKOPE, サイバー ’98, and many others were some of the artists emerged from these micro-genres. Vaporwave art and music videos that featured glitch art graphics, renaissance statues imposed onto a colorful background, Roman busts, 80s and 90s subculture references, anime, tropical landscapes, and Windows 95 computer imagery began to catch a lot of attention. In 2015, Rolling Stone published a list that included vaporwave act 2814 as one of “10 artists you need to know”, citing their album Birth of a New Day.
Even though vaporwave has now long been pronounced almost dead or the news of it has been surfacing for a long period of time, the truth is the genre was never universally celebrated in the first place. As Adam Harper once noted; vaporwave artists were “mysterious and often nameless entities that lurk the internet.”
There has been a great deal of controversy around the genre as well. In 2017, Vice’s Penn Bullock and Eli Penn reported on the phenomenon as “the first fascist music that is easy enough on the ears to have mainstream appeal” and reflective of “a global cybernetic subculture geared towards millennials, propagated by memes like Pepe the Frog, and centered on sites like 4chan”. (4chan is believed to be a place for self-identified fascists and alt-right members.)
But vaporwave somehow still continues to remain a staple of pop culture and politics. In 2019, Andrew Yang, the former 2020 presidential candidate, promoted pink vaporwave inspired hats for his presidential run that had become popular among his supporters. And there are die-hards who continue to make and share vaporwave inspired arts and music on Internet incessantly. But vaporwave was never meant to be as big as pop and hip hop music. Its original intent was always to effect a handful of people who hide behind a pseudo-corporate name and mysteriously loiter around the Internet.